The Code of Abilene

A lawyer friend called me about a problem he was having with an opposing attorney.  He described how difficult this person had been and read to me their contentious email exchange.  

“Have you ever met this guy?” I asked.  “No,” he replied.  “Our only communications have been by email.”   “What about the phone?  Have you called him to try to straighten things out?”  I inquired. My friend stiffened and replied defensively, “I’m not going to talk to that son of a bitch!”   

Conflict in America is at an all-time high. The pandemic got us further accustomed to hunkering down, watching our preferred cable news channels, absorbed in our assorted social media outlets, communicating by texts and emails, and getting madder and madder at each other.  Our quarreling – often played out on impersonal electronic platforms – too often descends into a kind of good-versus-evil tribal warfare with scant hope of compromise. We resist working things out face to face.

In her recent book High Conflict, author Amanda Ripley explores “the mysterious force that incites people to lose their minds” in altercations with others, many of whom they’ve never even met.  She defines “high conflict” as one “that becomes self-perpetuating and all-consuming, in which almost everyone ends up worse off.  Typically an us-versus-them conflict.”  In this disputatious world, the normal rules of human engagement – communicating in person, considering all sides of an issue – no longer seem to apply.  

Examples of high conflict abound.  A controversy in the Queen Anne’s County school district on the eastern shore of Maryland is typical.  In June 2020, school superintendent Dr. Andrea Kane wrote an end-of-school-year letter to parents of the district’s 7,000 students.  After reporting on sundry routine matters, Dr. Kane, who is Black, turned to “what is happening in our country and across the world right now.”  She spoke of recent police killings of Black persons and wrote that, “Racism is alive in our country, our state, in Queen Anne’s County, and our schools.”  According to Dr. Kane, “When I hit send, everything just imploded.”  Battle lines soon formed in this school district that is 85% white and mostly conservative.

Richard Smith, a school board member and local business owner, was offended by Dr. Kane’s characterization of racism in the county, declaring, “We do not have a racist county.  We do not have a racist board.”  Echoing Mr. Smith’s view, Gordana Schifanelli, an immigrant from Communist Yugoslavia and 22 year county resident, created a Facebook group called Kent Island Patriots.  Ms. Schifanelli asserted that the county had “no significant racial hatred,” and that Dr. Kane “needs to end her contract and go!”

The conflict continued its downward spiral into the 2020-21 school year.  The stress led Dr. Kane to take sick leave in October 2020.  By January 2021 she’d filed race discrimination charges against the school board. Meanwhile, Ms. Schifanelli made her case on Fox News, where the interviewer – who Ms. Ripley might call a “conflict entrepreneur” – gleefully egged her on. The denouement came in August 2021 with Dr. Kane’s resignation.  “It’s a difficult and divisive time in Queen Anne’s County,” she said in an interview.  “It’s beyond unfortunate. It doesn’t have to be this way.” Dwight Eisenhower knew more than most about high conflict from his service as a commanding general and U.S. president.  But he always recalled “the code of Abilene, Kansas,” which he learned there as a boy growing up: “Meet anyone face to face with whom you disagree.”

What might have unfolded had Dr. Kane and Ms. Schifanelli, instead of relying on national media outlets and the legal system to work out their grievances, first met in person?  I can’t say for sure that things would have fared better, but their seeing each other in the flesh might well have turned down the heat. Face to face we tend to be more generous towards each other, more willing to see each other as complex humans, and not simply “the enemy.” 

One final story illustrates the good that can come from personal contact.  Toward the end of a news conference, Fox News reporter Peter Doocy asked President Biden a question that he obviously didn’t like.  As White House officials scrambled to shoo reporters out of the room, Mr. Biden sarcastically answered the question, and while the mic was still “hot,” called the reporter a “stupid son of a bitch.”   

According to the account Mr. Doocy gave to Fox News interviewer Sean Hannity, the president called his cellphone an hour after the incident.  “It’s nothing personal, pal,” Mr. Doocy quoted the President as saying.   Summing up the call, Mr. Doocy said, “we were talking about just kind of moving forward.”  When Mr. Hannity – a connoisseur of conflict – demanded to know whether Mr. Biden had apologized, Mr. Doocy laughed. “Sean, the world is on the brink of, like, World War III right now with all this stuff going on,” he said, “and I appreciate that the President took a couple minutes out this evening while he was still at his desk to give me a call and clear the air.”

Bob Schieffer, a veteran CBS News anchor who has covered 10 presidents, said of the call, “It was something we don’t see that often: a civil exchange.  Both of them came off looking the better for it.” When faced with conflict, it can take gumption and even a bit of courage to talk to our adversary.  But if we all did that, we might start to rise out of our current conflict morass. Maybe there is something in the Code of Abilene after all.


About David Root 

With his amassed experience, a great resource to discuss the risks and exposures in your and your opposition’s case.

Dave spent the last 40+ years litigating personal injury, general liability, trucking, construction and employment claims in Georgia, most recently with the Copeland, Stair, Valz & Lovell firm in Atlanta.  He has tried scores of civil cases throughout Georgia, so he can talk to your clients and your opponent’s clients about actual trial outcomes as well as strategies that worked and those that didn’t work.  Dave is a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, an invitation only organization of preeminent trial lawyers limited to 1% of the lawyers in each state.  He is also a member of the Federation of Defense and Corporate Counsel, a nomination-only organization limited to private practice lawyers, corporate counsel and professionals engaged in civil defense work.  Dave has been active with the DeKalb County Bar Association, serving two terms as Chair of its Litigation Section.  He is AV Preeminent rated by Martindale-Hubbell, and has written and spoken on a variety of legal topics.  He has been included in the Georgia Super Lawyers list since 2008.  He is a magna cum laude graduate of Wake Forest University where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Alpha Theta, and he graduated from the Wake Forest University School of Law.  Dave is also an elder at North Decatur Presbyterian Church and is Board member of Georgia Interfaith Power and Light, a non-profit organization that engages communities of faith on issues of environmental stewardship. In his spare time, besides spending time with his family, Dave enjoys backpacking the longer trails in the world.  Dave is ready to serve as your mediator.